Distributing Density: Middle-Scale Housing for Sustainable Communities

Over the last three years, a team from MIT’s Real Estate Innovation Lab, the City of Boston Housing Innovation Lab, the Boston Society of Architects, and MIT’s Future Urban Collectives Lab have come together to workshop solutions to a significant problem in our community: housing affordability.  The past two workshops – “Developing Differently” and “Innovative Materials and Methods” – provided an opportunity for community leaders across a range of fields with interdisciplinary backgrounds to think collectively and design solutions to core issues in the affordable housing supply for our community.

This year, on July 7th and 8th, 2020, we convened over 60 dedicated participants for a two-day, virtual workshop to discuss and identify innovative solutions that can help facilitate the production of equitable, sustainable, middle-scale housing in the city of Boston. We asked the housing community to help us craft a Request for Ideas (RFI) for our next Housing Innovation Competition, and also to attempt to respond to our central question: Can Middle Scale Housing Be Used as an Anti-Racist Strategy?

At this year’s event we witnessed, once again, the importance of inter-professional collaboration that can lead to alternative solutions to the issue at hand. We listened attentively to each of the breakout groups’ ideas and proposals highlighting the importance of inclusionary and innovative housing models, the role of housing as a process of community-making, the need for financial and institutional support in the creation of this form of housing, and so much more. Most of all, we appreciated the ways in which many of the participant professionals were able to openly critique and respond to the RFI presented, as well as our overall process and vision for the next Housing Innovation Competition.

In order to reduce current barriers for developers looking to create affordable housing in Boston, we can create mixed-income communities through zoning solutions such as: Form Based Code, No Zoning Code, Overlay for Affordability, and Increasing Threshold for Article 80. Specifically, Affordable Housing Zoning Overlay provides incentives for developers to include affordable units in their projects, as well as creating new affordable units more quickly, more cost effectively, and in areas where there are fewer affordable housing options for residents.

Some of the incentives include increased density bonus, increased allowable heights, lower parking requirements, streamlined permitting, etc.  This approach meets the goals of improving speed of the regulatoryprocesses, removing barriers for affordable development, encouraging/incentivizing creative solutions in the missing middle without encumbrances of zoning, and promoting projects that don’t require subsidy. An overlay could maximize community benefits in addition to the creation of affordable housing.